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Ireland's fixation with store cattle does nothing for saleable yields

A farmer from Northern Ireland asked a Southern counterpart about getting value in stores.

"Well, we have Arnotts and Clerys, and ... "

"I'm talking store cattle not shops, you clown," interrupted the frustrated Northerner.

Irish store cattle have always been in demand. Back in the 1880s when German leader Bismarck visited Ireland he suggested that the ideal farming activity for Ireland was to produce store cattle for finishing in mainland Europe. And this was the reality until Irish slaughter plants came into being from the 1950s.

The essence of a store animal is that it passes through a period of sub-optimal feeding or even feed depravation during which it grows frame at the expense of fat and muscle. When it returns to full ration extra compensatory growth is achieved.

In spring the beef finishers look out for the outlier that weighs poorly for its size. This beast will motor on when the feed brakes are taken off. Relatively cheap beef gain is achieved off grass. In contrast the hothouse animal that has been stuffed with meal over the winter can actually lose weight when it goes to grass and take four to six weeks before it regains its turnout weight.

But is the quality of Irish beef suffering because of our attachment to storing cattle? Will cattle that have endured a lot of storing time lose out under the new price grid known as the Quality Payment System? And, especially, is the growing practice of store feeding young bulls doing harm to the image and quality of Irish beef?

Butchers prefer the meat quality of an animal that hasn't endured a setback or prolonged depravation: the growth interruption can lead to a strip of grizzle especially in the sirloin and rib cuts.

The level of feeding can impact big time on the conformation grade. The younger an animal reaches its slaughter weight the better the conformation grade. Also, at the same shape and fat level, the younger animal will give better saleable meat yield. This is because of the higher bone content in the older carcass, according to Dr Gerry Keane in Teagasc Grange.

Across the UK and Ireland, Scottish beef continually sells at a significant premium. How much of this premium is because of the fact that the Scots do not go in for store feeding their cattle? Neither are they big exponents of bull beef.

Breeding will be the primary determinant of an animal's shape potential but unless the animal gets the feeding to develop the muscling, this shape potential will not be expressed.

This is best seen in the presentation of show cattle and pedigree bulls. Feeding can help cover a lot of conformation sins. These animals can be quite plain in the absence of the nose bag. Equally, farmers have been shocked to see how well-fleshed, shiny show bulls can melt into plain ducks when the going gets tough.

Across the US and Canada, and increasingly in other parts of the globe, the highest eating quality beef comes from the feedlots where suckled cattle have been finished at a young age without a prolonged period of feed depravation.

In Ireland our traditional approach to beef has been to maximise grass and this goes hand in hand with periods of storing cattle. This may or may not be cost-effective -- storing cattle is also a cost -- but it is doing nothing for beef quality or saleable meat yield.


Last week I wrote of the attempted confiscation of family farms by avaricious spouses in divorces and separations following a brief marriage. There is another side to this issue as some angry feedback has pointed out.

This is a situation where a spouse, usually female, marries into a farm, is treated as an unpaid slave by her husband and in-laws, her independent income is used to subsidise or even redeem the farm.

After a long number of years, one spouse, usually the husband, takes on a new partner, and tries to leave the wife with little or nothing. This, too, is very wrong. I know life is often unfair, but society and law must always tip the balance back towards equity and fair play.

Irish Independent